Alternately seduced and repelled by its subject, the garish and power-hungry Harlem gangster and ’70s cocaine kingpin Nicky Barnes, “Mr. Untouchable” is one seriously confused documentary. Since the film tries to couch itself as too hip to deliver a cautionary anti-drug message while surveying the collapse of an egomaniacal big shot, its sentiments toward Barnes — vicious thug? Superfly with bigger guns and bigger bank? — are visibly torn. While Magnolia’s fall release may pull in “Scarface” fans, final B.O. tally isn’t likely to be north of the average theatrical doc, though vid and cable will prove a boost.
Intro announces Barnes as a “Godfather”-type figure repping criminal heights (or depths) for the Harlem community, and notes that Barnes remains in hiding with $1 million on his head. How he got to this point is the primary concern of director Marc Levin (“Slam,” “The Last Party”), and what’s perhaps most surprising about “Mr. Untouchable” is how uninteresting Barnes’ rise to power actually is.
His violent childhood quickly passed over and unexamined, Barnes took advantage of a central shift in African-American life in the late ’60s/early ’70s, when an increasingly radicalized and politicized population was hobbled by both a static legit economy and a suddenly explosive heroin and cocaine biz. It’s indicative of pic’s shallowness that Levin completely ignores the underpinnings of what allowed a Barnes to burst on the scene.
Even a crucial paradox — that those who bring drugs into poor communities are deliberately feeding poverty and black underdevelopment — is barely addressed here, and when it is, it’s done in a cagey manner by Barnes himself, who’s filmed in silhouette and in fragmented shots that reveal flashy jewelry and wads of dough. If ever a doc made a living crook look slick and movie-star potent, it’s this one.
In ways never fully explained, Barnes gained a rep as having “the best powder” in Harlem, and, even as a junkie, gradually began attracting young guys with a taste for crime and easy money, like Joseph “Jazz” Hayden, Leon “Scrap” Batts and Frank James. A prison stint did nothing but help Barnes build his organization, dubbed “the Council,” which exploited an extraordinary uptick in drug traffic from 1970-1975.
Pic makes liberal use of quotes on the amoral uses of power from Niccolo Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” Barnes’ favorite read behind bars. Like a good student, Barnes took Machiavelli’s principles to heart, purchasing his drug supply from the Italian-American Mafia and selling it directly on the street without the usual middlemen. For DEA agent Don Ferrarone (one of pic’s several law-enforcement talking heads), this was the key to Barnes’ rise to dominance.
Key to his fall, per the title, was Barnes’ certitude that he couldn’t get caught, which in turn fed his willingness to strike a cocky pose for a 1977 New York Times Magazine cover story written by Fred Ferretti. When DEA undercover agent Louie Diaz got Hayden to talk on tape, feds had what they needed to put Barnes behind bars on conspiracy charges. (Perhaps pic’s lowest touch is actually granting time to Barnes’ ex-wife Thelma and others to complain he was somehow unfairly convicted.)
Even more damaging to the film’s p.o.v. is how it frames Barnes’ eventual betrayal — “ratting” on his associates and turning state’s evidence out of vengeance — as some kind of rough justice for his conviction. Even though Hayden and others denounce Barnes as a coward and a snitch, and even admit what they did was wrong, pic gives Barnes (now in the feds’ witness protection program) the nasty and possibly victorious last word: Screw with me, and I’ll screw you back — only worse.
Original elements here are little more than blandly filmed interview segs, excepting those with Barnes, whose hidden face recalls the depiction of Jesus in old-time biblical epics. Editor Emir Lewis wraps the interviews, archival footage and photos into a funky package (abetted by Curtis Mayfield tunes and other period music), heightening the bothersome sense that this horrific period is somehow worthy of nostalgic regard.